(CNSNews.com) – A spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia over human rights has escalated into a major diplomatic rift, with the kingdom expelling Canada’s ambassador, suspending air links, and threatening to relocate thousands of Saudi students from Canada to other countries.
Also in the firing line: a pending agreement to sell $15 billion worth of Canadian light armored vehicles to Riyadh – the biggest arms deals in Canada’s history.
The row has drawn fresh attention to a country which, despite a campaign of ostensible reforms led by its powerful crown prince, remains one of the world’s most oppressive, with religious freedom severely curtailed and offenses including apostasy and homosexual acts punishable by death.
Saudi Arabia earned the lowest grades for political rights and civil liberties in Freedom House’s most recent annual Freedom in the World survey.
The dispute erupted late last week after Canada criticized the arrest of two leading women’s rights activists, the latest of several to be detained since May.
One of the two, Samar Badawi, is also the sister of one of the kingdom’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, Raif Badawi, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for “insulting Islam” and whose wife is a Canadian citizen.
In a tweet on Friday the Canadian ministry responsible for foreign affairs said, “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”
Western democracies frequently raise concerns publicly about rights abuses by autocratic regimes, but on this occasion the kingdom’s reaction was striking.
Accusing Canada of “overt and blatant interference” in its internal affairs, the foreign ministry in Riyadh declared Canada’s ambassador persona non grata and gave him 24 hours to leave. It also recalled its ambassador from Ottawa, and announced a freeze on all new trade and investment transactions with Canada.
According to the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh some 16,000 Saudi students study at Canadian institutions, and “communities across Canada have welcomed these students in the best tradition of our open, tolerant and multi-cultural society.”
On Monday, however, it was reported that many of those students’ futures are now uncertain. The Education Ministry says those studying on Saudi scholarships – numbering almost 8,100, according to official figures cited in Saudi media reports – will be relocated to other countries and all scholarship and fellowship programs in Canada will be halted.
In a related move, Saudi Arabian Airlines, the national carrier, announced it was suspending all services to and from Toronto, with effect from next Monday
Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies, as is their custom, quickly expressed support.
Emirati foreign affairs minister Anwar Gargash said on Twitter the UAE “cannot but stand with Saudi Arabia in defending its sovereignty and its laws and in taking the necessary actions.”
Without mentioning Canada by name, he added, “Some states believe that their model and experience allow them to interfere …”
Bahrain charged that the Canadians’ stance regarding “what they called civil society activists” was “based on totally erroneous information that has nothing to do with reality on the ground.”
Also lining up to support the Saudi government was the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a bloc of 56 mostly Muslim-majority states, which called for respect for the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia, a “sovereign state that enjoys wide respect at the regional and international levels.”
The head of the kingdom’s Shura Council, an unelected body with limited powers to draft laws and advise the king, condemned Canada, saying Saudi laws are based on the Qur’an, and that human rights are promoted and applied in Saudi Arabia “in the light of the provisions of Islamic law.”
The imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman bin Abdulaziz Al-Sudais, stressed that the kingdom applies “shari’a in all its security, legislative, executive and organizational affairs,” and that interference in its internal affairs is “categorically rejected.”
Responding to the Saudi actions, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed concern but was unapologetic.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” she said in a statement. “We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
Samar Badawi and the second woman arrested last week, Nassima al-Sadah, are known for their campaigns to have the kingdom abolish regulations that restrict women’s freedom to travel or make decisions relating to jobs or marriage without permission of a male guardian, and which until recently banned them from driving.
Badawi received the U.S. International Women of Courage Award in 2012 for her advocacy against the guardianship system, and on behalf of a woman’s right to vote in municipal elections.
(Only since 2015 have Saudi women been allowed to stand or to vote in municipal elections. The kingdom does not hold national elections.)
Badawi’s brother, blogger Raif Badawi, was sentenced in 2014 to 10 years’ imprisonment, a substantial fine, and 1,000 lashes for, among other charges, “insulting Islam and religious authorities.”
In early 2015 he received the first 50 lashes in a public flogging in front of a mosque in Jeddah, despite the State Department’s urging that the “brutal punishment” not be meted out. Subsequent rounds of flogging were postponed but he remains in prison.